Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will…ruin our relationship.
Have you ever been reluctant to bring up a topic with your partner because it will inevitably lead to shouting profanities and slamming doors?
Have you ever said something in the middle of a conversation that unintentionally (or, perhaps, intentionally) pissed of your partner?
Have you ever left a conversation feeling frustrated, invalidated, misunderstood, or unheard altogether? You’re not alone; communication and conflict resolution are hard work.
A lack of communication is only part of the failed relationship equation, though. Sometimes the way you communicate (or don’t communicate) is the actual cause of conflict.
Below are 5 common “trigger phrases” that probably frustrate your partner more than you realize, along with helpful suggestions to upgrade your word choice (and avoid the next argument altogether).
- “ALWAYS / NEVER”
“You always forget my birthday. I’ve done it every time since we met.”
“You never want to have sex anymore. I don’t know why I even try.”
When confronting your partner about anything from birthdays to intercourse avoid using ‘always’ or ‘never’ to exaggerate your point. It may seem harmless, but these words carry a significant amount of permanence that can make your partner feel like you are attacking their personality at large rather than an isolated incident or issue.
Telling your partner that they never help or they always mess up minimizes the effort they do put into the relationship and may invoke feelings of guilt, helplessness, under-appreciation, or frustration.
Upgrade the conversation by focusing on the future outcome you’d like to achieve rather than berating your partner’s past actions.
Set aside a time when you have your partner’s full attention to bring up the issue and start by genuinely thanking him/her for their existing contribution to the team. Be direct about what it is that you want or don’t want without being demanding or making your partner feel inadequate.
Let your partner know that you are simply requesting a change in roles, responsibilities, and accountability of the partnership not beating them up about something they never seem to get right (or “always” seem to get wrong).
- “CALM DOWN”
“Relax.” “Chill.” “Don’t be so sensitive.” “You’re overreacting.”
Telling your partner to calm down insinuates that their emotional response in a situation is somehow wrong or invalid.
The worst thing you can do in a relationship is to tell your partner how to feel.
Validate your partner’s feelings whether you think they are overreacting or not. Remember, your partner’s feelings are your partner’s feelings not yours. No matter how well you may know someone, you will never be able to fully understand the way their individual brain processes information or experiences emotion.
Your partner has the right to express any emotion they experience without judgment, criticism, or outside interpretation.
Something that seems trivial to you might make your partner completely hysterical; past experiences, previous relationships, and social conditioning all contribute to differing views of a shared situation. His/her feelings of fear, anxiety, concern, sorrow, discontentment, worry, anger, or frustration are real emotions that require recognition and understanding.
A great way to diffuse a hostile confrontation without discrediting your partner’s emotions is by mirroring, or asking why they feel so strongly about an issue before repeating back their concerns with compassion and understanding. More often than not, emotional reactions stem from a lack of feeling heard, understood, and acknowledged.
You don’t have to apologize for an unavoidable situation (like coming home late when you had a pressing matter at work) or even agree with your partner’s emotional response; you can, however, extinguish feelings of invalidation by letting them know you are listening and that you understand where their emotional distress is coming from. If possible, redirect the conversation to the present moment and offer a suggestion to move forward.
“I understand you are upset that I stayed late and frustrated that I didn’t communicate with you. Next time, I will send you a text right away if I know I’ll be staying late. I’d love to hear about your day over dessert or a cup of tea.”
Make your partner feel like they can trust you with their emotions; acknowledging their feelings gets to the root of the problem more quickly so he/she can actually start to calm down.
- “…SUPPOSED TO”
“You were supposed to mail that package last week. Now it’s going to be late.”
Reminding your partner of important tasks they’ve forgotten or pointing out mistakes they’ve made can be helpful if done with sensitivity, kindness, and compassion in the appropriate setting.
Blaming your partner for neglecting to complete an important task, however, can cause them to feel like a failure. Feelings of failure breed feelings of defeat, guilt, and defensiveness.
Your partner may try to retaliate with a similar list of your “supposed to’s”, call you out for being nagging (i.e. “you sound like my mother”), excuse/justify their actions, or by shutting down and refusing to respond altogether.
To truly be heard by your partner, you must communicate with intention.
Figure out what exactly you want out of the situation:
- Do you want an apology?
- Do you want him/her to understand how you feel?
- Do you want to create a plan to avoid repeating the situation in the future?
Bringing up a mistake your partner made for the personal satisfaction of hearing him/her admit they were wrong doesn’t resolve or progress the situation.
Reframe your approach by using “I” or “we” instead of “you”. Redirect the focus on your feelings rather than what your partner did or didn’t do. Communicate with the intention of expressing your feelings and moving forward.
“I’m frustrated with our process of accountability. Mailing that package was important to me because I wanted my mother to receive her birthday gift on time. Would you still be willing to drop it off to the post office for me?”
Remember that your partner doesn’t have to do what you ask or what you think is best, and that they aren’t always going to get it right; that’s the beauty of the human experience.
Release the expectations you have for your partner and celebrate the things they do get right. Once you start noticing and appreciating all of the things they do for you, the things they were “supposed to do” won’t matter quite so much.
“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.” -Bruce Lee.
- “CAN YOU…?”
The ego is a very fragile thing in our culture. Our societal ranking receives a little boost every time we are seen as being knowledgeable or capable; on the flip side, our status gets demoted (and our ego gets a little ‘bruised’) when we are seen as clueless or incapable.
With that in mind, consider the difference between the two requests below:
“Can you do the dishes?”
“Will you do the dishes?”
The difference is slight but important. The first line, “can you…” implies that there is a question of ability at play. Can they wash the dishes? Are they actually capable of gathering the plates, running the water, scrubbing the grease, drying and putting them away?
The second line, “will you…” is more of an inquiry of willingness and a desire for an action to occur. There is no question of ability, but rather a question of willingness to complete the task.
Questioning your partner’s ability whether you mean to or not may cause them to feel incapable of ‘getting it right.’ He/she might not be willing to complete the task simply because you are already suggesting they are going to get it wrong.
Empower your partner by changing every “can you..?” into “will you…?” or “would you…?”. This is especially important for those with a strong sense of self (a typical characteristic of the male ego or masculine energy).
Follow up your request with an empowering statement and an expression of gratitude for the potential willingness:
“Will you do the dishes? You do them so much faster than I do. It would be such a big help after the crazy day I’ve had.”
Upgrade your language, upgrade your life.
5. “SORRY, BUT…”
The most dreaded word in any argument is the apology-nullifying “but.” There are typically two reasons we justify adding “but” to the end of our apology: to condone or to criticize.
Condoning (or excusing/justifying a negative behavior) completely negates your apology.
“I’m sorry for not texting you back, but we were tied in the 9th mile traffic and I couldn’t concentrate.”
A sincere apology requires an acknowledgement that your actions hurt your partner in some way and a commitment to altering your behaviour in the future.
Nobody wants to depend on a car that only starts during perfect weather conditions, the same way that nobody wants to depend on someone whose word can only be trusted when it’s convenient for them.
Criticizing is a way to justify an insult and save face after making a mistake.
“I’m sorry for calling you lazy, but honestly you haven’t gotten much done around the house lately.”
The purpose of an apology is to take responsibility for your actions — not your partner’s.
If you’ve said or done something hurtful, own up to your behaviour without blaming him/her for instigating your negative behaviour. Follow up with a plan to avoid repeating the situation in the future and let go of any expectations you have for their response; if they still feel angry or hurt after your apology, that’s okay. They have the right to deal with the situation in their own way in their own time.
“I’m sorry for calling you lazy. I was wrong to express my frustrations like that. I would love to set up a time to discuss our shared responsibilities so I never get that overwhelmed again.”
Remember: you can’t control your partner’s actions, but you can (and do) control your reaction.
In conclusion, I hope this article has cultivated an increased awareness of the language you choose to use in your relationship(s).
Avoiding these 5 trigger phrases will help you upgrade your relationship by speaking your truth in a positive, constructive, empowering way. Go forth and communicate with intention, my friend.
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